A test of faith in localism

Half an hour may be a short time for debate, but if you're at the receiving end of sustained parliamentary shelling it can feel a lot longer. On Tuesday the heavy artillery took the form of the MP for Mid Sussex, Nicholas Soames, who I joined in a Westminster Hall debate about the proposed Mayfield new town in our constituencies. This 10,000 house development in open countryside has been rejected as unsustainable by local councils.

Soames rounded on the developers, whose disreputable tactics have included leafleting communities in other parts of West Sussex to say that they needn't have new housing because there could be a new town somewhere else. But this senior Conservative backbencher also fired a volley in the direction of the Minister which I doubt went unnoticed:

"We will be deeply and abidingly unhappy if the Government's planning reforms, which we loyally supported and which were meant to promote the principle of sustainable development and localism, allow such an appalling development to happen. We cannot allow the localism that we promised, which local people supported, to be overturned at the behest of developers. There will be lasting damage, not just to the countryside, but to the Government. Our constituents expect us to honour our party's words and commitments; we intend to see that we do."

We received an important reassurance from the Housing Minister, who responded to the debate, that the new town would not be imposed. That is welcome, but we will also be watching to ensure that the Planning Inspectorate does not restore the top-down interference with planning that was meant to have been abolished, so driving local councils to opt for 'strategic developments' that they would otherwise reject. That's exactly what's happening in another district in my constituency, Arun.

The Conservative Party's Manifesto in 2010 pledged that "To give communities greater control over planning, we will abolish the power of planning inspectors to rewrite local plans". In fact the Inspectorate is being deployed by ministers to drive up housing numbers. That is a deliberate abrogation of the localism that was promised. As I've argued before, letting developers vandalise the countryside won't solve the housing crisis.

Only this week, the Inspector returned Mid-Sussex' plan on the grounds that they had failed under the 'duty to co-operate' with neighbouring coastal councils. Encouraged by developers who would rather build on green fields than brownfield sites, these neighbourly councils are clearly trying to foist housing somewhere else. But the principal effect of the Inspector's interference will be to to delay a local plan and 3,000 new homes which it would deliver in the first five years.

Last year the Prime Minister said that the Government's planning reforms "will make it easier for communities to say, ‘We are not going to have a big plonking housing estate landing next to the village ...'." So, as I said in the debate, for local people and their MPs, whether this new town in West Sussex goes ahead is "a test of faith in the Government's flagship policy of localism".